Inside America's First Ever Legal Marijuana Festival

Welcome to Colorado. Earlier this year, the city of Denver was host to America's first ever legal marijuana festival, signalling either a new dawn of enlightened drugs policy across the western world or a trippy anomaly in the rocky mountains. Esquire's Sanjiv Bhattacharya was on site to partake

Most Popular

It's just gone midday on Friday 18 April and a little black bus full of weedheads is pootling through downtown Denver. It's one of those buses without individual seats or rows, there's just one continuous bench that runs along each side, and there are maybe 20 of us on board, all as high as balloons and passing doobies down the line, a carousel of glowing orange tips.

We're here on holiday with My 420 Tours, the US's first ever legal marijuana tourism company, who runs a three-day safari of the city's weed hot spots. It's also the US's only marijuana tour company, unless you count the occasional pot-friendly B&B. (These are early days – weed was formally legalised in Colorado on 1 January.) But it does at least feel like tourism. My 420 Tours has put us in a Crowne Plaza hotel and given us matching green wristbands saying "World Cannabis Week". And each morning, after the breakfast buffet, we meet in the lobby where a pretty tour guide called Megan, wearing a "Best Buds" T-shirt, counts us on to a bus.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I've already developed a dopey crush on Megan, a devout Christian who only started smoking to alleviate a mysterious stomach pain. It's the way she stays so perky, while smoking all day. It's her "Hallo campers!" smile, as she dishes out spliffs from the front of the bus, repeating everything she says because she knows we're too baked to get it the first time. Here she is now, a picture of sunny, customer service, reminding us all to stay hydrated on account of Denver's famed altitude: "You're in the mile-high city now, you guys! You're already high!"

More From Long Reads
20 articles
Ladybird books
How The Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups Became A...
GIF
My Visit To The Trump Dump... Sorry, Trump Tower
How Russia Pulled Off The Biggest Election Hack...
David Foster Wallace Empowered A Generation To...
Hemingway
Marlin Off The Morro: Ernest Hemingway's...

Our first stop this morning was a cooking class at a culinary school downtown. We made cannabis granola, cannabis jalapeño poppers and meatballs with a balsamic cannabis reduction. And then we ate them. But since edibles take a while to kick in, the group became restless, and as soon as we were back on the bus, we all started skinning up furiously. Now, the smoke's so thick, it pours through the sunroof in a column and trails behind us like an old steam train.

"Let's hear it for Weedstock, man!" A large, noisy man is waving a stick around with a GoPro video camera on the end, rallying the back of the bus for some kind of YouTube video. He's just a tourist like us, but the confident kind who thinks nothing of addressing the group. "This is the first ever 420 weekend for legal weed in America, man – it's history, and we're fucking here! Yeah!"

The response is tepid – a few mild whoops. But it's not bad, considering how caned we all are. We all respond to 420 at this point like Pavlov's dogs – it's the universally accepted code for smokers, and a piece of weed folklore. Apparently, it started in the Seventies, when a bunch of high-school kids in San Rafael, Northern California, would meet for a smoke at 4.20pm outside school. One of their parents was connected to Sixties' rock band Grateful Dead, who passed it on to their fans, the Deadheads, and so it became a thing. Now, Craigslist ads seek 420-friendly roommates, and the number of a state bill in California regulating medical marijuana was SB420. And that's how 20 April, two days away, has become the annual marijuana day for smokers. Never mind it's Hitler's birthday. 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Anyway, I think he's right, GoPro guy. This is historic. In fact, the more I think about it, the more historic it gets.

The US's war on weed began before most of us were born, and it's been a nasty business, however you slice it. In the last decade alone, there have been more than eight million arrests, disproportionately targeting poor minorities in order to feed a bloated prison industrial complex, etc, etc – stop me if you've heard this one before. And then two states, Colorado and Washington, said "enough" and legalised it. This isn't just decriminalisation, which is much more common (16 states and counting). Typically, decriminalisation means reducing the category of offence from criminal to civil, and so reducing the punishment from arrest and prison to the level of a ticket or fine.

But legalisation means full legitimacy – it makes pot a taxable, regulated industry on a par with alcohol. And that's just what happened in January this year, when Denver became the first place in the world to explicitly legalise cannabis. (Even Amsterdam considers pot illegal, it just doesn't enforce the laws.) And while Washington has been cautious, Colorado has taken the bowl and run with it.

First, in November 2012, the state passed Amendment 64, permitting recreational possession of up to an ounce, and allowed individuals to grow at home. Then from 1 January 2014, licensed dispensaries (weed stores) were permitted to sell weed to anyone over 21.

Already, Denver has more dispensaries than branches of Starbucks; The Denver Post has hired a marijuana editor and two product reviewers; and there's no busier office at Colorado's Department of Revenue than the Marijuana Enforcement Division. Because this is serious business. Tax revenues are projected to reach $134m for the fiscal year on $1bn in sales. Violent crime is down, property crime's down and tourism's up.

So as other states watch Colorado's success – green-eyed in every sense – it's highly likely that as goes Denver, so will go Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and on and on until pot prohibition is lifted across the country and millions of prisoners of war will be set free at last, free at last…

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I know, I'm stoned, but it's epic stuff.

So that's why I flew into Denver this morning. There are maybe 80,000 – 100,000 even – just like me, depending on whose guesstimates you believe, and we're all here for the first ever legal marijuana festival in the US. A two-day event, it's called the Cannabis Cup. Snoop Dogg's playing. All over the city there are symposiums, gigs, parties and "weed brunches". And on Easter Sunday, 20 April, we're going to gather in the Civic Center Park for the first legal 420 smoke out. The revolution starts here. Yes we cannabis.

The only hard part is that I have to work – to partake and function at the same time. I'm not complaining; I get how cushy, with a K, this gig is. While some reporters wade through Aids in war-torn Africa, I'm skinning up at Ganjapalooza with Megan. I even get to put the puff on expenses, which is especially sweet given that I once almost got fired for leaving a quarter of skunk on my desk. (The stash was still there the next morning, heaped up in front of my keyboard, next to a Post-it: "Pls call Personnel".)

Most Popular

But the more "research" I do, the fuzzier I get on the details; things like who's here and what just happened.

So I've brought a bunch of digital devices to bail me out in case I start to drift – a voice recorder, camera and phone, plus all necessary chargers – but now I've got so much stuff, my bag's a jumble and I can't find anything. There's all this weed gubbins in there, too: two hybrid strains, some pre-rolled cones, a vaporiser pen, a grinder, seven lighters and all that laced granola.

"Man, look at all your shit!" There's a woman peering into my bag. She looks a bit Blaxploitation with her wraparound shades, red jacket and little hat. She says her name's Pamela, from Oklahoma. "I could just put my hand in there and steal it!"

"No, no, I need all that to work," I say, weakly. "That's for interviews and pictures."

"Oh, I'm a delete all that, yeah. Delete delete delete! I'm a ruin your damn life!" And she laughs. "I'm wanted in five states!"

I clutch my bag a bit closer. Pamela's the only one on the bus who, if you pass her a joint, she keeps it. To be fair, though, I think she's the only actual fugitive on the bus. It's really quite "Kumbaya", this crowd, if I can get a bit hippy for a minute. There's young and old, here, black, brown and white, and we've come from all over – Pennsylvania, Florida, New Mexico, California, Maryland. And everyone's smoking each other's gear and chatting away, in their strangled, yet-to-exhale voices.

It's so mellow that I feel bad for even thinking about hygiene, all those germs getting passed around. "Smoke kills all that," a guy from Texas tells me. "That's how we cure meat back home."

There seem to be three discernible tribes among us. There are the patients who use weed medicinally, like Billy, an engineer from Wisconsin with trembling hands. He's not here to get toasted; he smokes to help his fibromyalgia (a muscular pain).

"My cannabis is high in CBDs [cannabidiols, marijuana's non-psychoactive components], to help with pain, but low in THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the drug's mind-altering ingredient], which makes you high," he explains, with technical precision. "However, I have purchased some cannabis that does deliver a buzz in order to share with the group."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Some are here for career reasons, like the father and son from Alabama who are handing out business cards for their cannabis networking website. Megan has seen plenty of investors show an interest, looking to buy into the booming cannabis industry.

But some people are just looking for a job – like the couple who work at Walmart in southern Colorado, who would rather trim plants instead, an entry-level position in the new cannabis economy. Apparently, they met a guy who made $10 an hour that way, with a smoke break every 90 minutes and a free quarter of weed a week. It could be worse.

The rest, however, are just on holiday – a grinny, red-eyed bunch with enormous capacities for the stuff. These people don't worry about partaking and functioning, because that's what they do best. There's Candy, a carer from Pennsylvania who's having "too much fun. I think I'm dreaming." Her partner Jesse, a funeral director, has a grin that's more or less permanent.

They're here from Florida for Candy's 52nd birthday treat, thanks to her daughter Danielle, who's wearing a "Looks Like Barbie, Smokes Like Marley" T-shirt. Danielle's such a high-functioning stoner, she'll do a full blunt in the morning and then go to work as a trial consultant, briefing lawyers and screening juries. She has even brought her work with her on the bus – a thick yellow folder full of tax forms and spreadsheets.

Then there's GoPro guy, John Strader, a fortysomething radio producer from Albuquerque, who's so excited to be here he provides a live commentary of events for the group, just in case we missed something, which we often have. His real claim to fame, he says, is shovel racing – a kind of redneck luge that involves sitting on a shovel and hurtling down an icy course. "It's great for going really fast," he says, "just not so good at corners." One day, he came flying off and broke a bunch of bones. So he turned to cannabis for pain relief, and never looked back. "It beats the fuck out of opiates, dude."

The bus stops at a hemp fashion warehouse called HoodLAB, something of a landmark in the Denver pot scene – it was once the first unofficial smoking lounge known as Club 64. We all stumble off, blinking in the sunlight. Some take terrible pictures. Others stare into space.

"Look at us scatter!" says John. "Can you tell we've been to a cooking class? Ha ha!"

I'm wary of edibles. The highs tend to be trippier, more full-bodied, and they're often accompanied by the realisation that you're in the grip of something, and you don't know what, because it's so hard to tell how much you've had.

When The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ate four times the recommended amount of infused chocolate while reporting on the Denver pot scene and descended into paranoid terror, she was rightly lampooned for not reading the label. But equally, edibles aren't dosed in a rational fashion – if a KitKat-size chocolate bar can ruin you for 24 hours, it probably should come with a prominent warning rather than some small print about milligrams.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Needless to say, there were no labels on our jalapeño poppers or meatballs. So back in HoodLAB, the confusion is setting in. Megan leads us into a darkened hall where some mad professor is lecturing a rapt audience about lamps – a wash of babble about "magnetic ballast" and "metal halides".

Suddenly, everyone in the room says "smell it" in unison, so I start giggling, and people look at me funny. I head out the back to a shaded lounge where people are rolling up everywhere, and find a couch that looks just blissful in the dappled light. Maybe if I park there and stare into the middle distance with my mouth open for just a couple of hours…

Most Popular

"Hi sweetie, I'm Chloe, I put on this event. You're here from Esquire?" This beaming smile sits next to me and lights up a big joint. She's another of those hyper-functional, self-possessed smoker girls, and not unattractive either. Denver's pretty awesome.

"I started the only approved and licensed Cannabis University in the nation, Clover Leaf University," she says. "We provide certifications for the industry. I also have one of the biggest consulting groups in the country for marijuana and I helped write some of the laws. So you know, if you're interested, I'll tell you what's going on."

Hold on. I need to press a red button.

***

What's going on out here is nothing short of a revolution. Only not the Che Guevara kind; this revolution has crept up like an edibles high, slowly but surely, citizen by citizen, state by state. It's like gay marriage, in some ways: a social issue whose time has come, in no small part because a recalcitrant older generation has literally started to die off. It was 2011 when 50 per cent of Americans were identified as pro-legalisation according to Gallup – gay marriage crossed that Rubicon in 2010 – and in their wake, late as always, have come the public figures who tend to magically evolve on issues once poll numbers can no longer be denied.

But weed is a much bigger issue overall. Smokers far outnumber gays (38 per cent have tried marijuana, whereas around four per cent identify as LGBT); the effects on medicine, the justice system and the economy are huge. So the battle is being fought on many fronts at once, and a distinctive winning strategy has emerged.

First medical marijuana kicks open the doors, brandishing the imprimatur of science and the endorsements of recognised doctors, people like the former surgeon general (the US's leading spokesman on public health) Joycelyn Elders, and CNN's Sanjay Gupta. Then politicians come to realise that a strong stand on "drugs" might entail denying a crippled war veteran his medicine on live television.

And eventually, even Republicans start to adapt – the libertarian wing stressing the personal freedom issue, while the country-club types focusing on taxation, not only as a way to squeeze stoners, who they've never liked, but also to pay for tax cuts for their wealthy base. It's a win-win. You know change is in the air when even Pat Robertson is on board – the 84-year-old evangelical preacher who's always yammering away on TV – came out as pro-legalisation in 2012.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

To date, two states have legalised weed, 16 have decriminalised, and 22 permit medical marijuana, so there's a way to go yet. But these numbers will rise – some this year in the mid-term elections, and many more after the presidential election in 2016 when young voters tend to come out in greater numbers. And this time, the change could be dramatic. Huge states like California, whose pro-weed lobby recently stalled a planned bill, holding out for 2016, and where polls shows nearly 60 per cent support.

Arizona has also legalisation plans for 2016 (polls show 51 per cent support). Massachusetts, too. New York currently polls 57 per cent support for legalisation and thanks to Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, will become a medical marijuana state soon. The shackles are loosening all over the country – Vermont, DC, Oregon, Hawaii and Delaware are all easing restrictions. Alaska may even legalise this November, becoming state number three; there's a bill on the ballot and polls show 55 per cent support.

One reason why reformers are so optimistic is because the federal government has promised to stay out of the way for the first time ever. According to federal law, which is stuck in the Reefer Madness era, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug (the US equivalent of Class A) like heroin and LSD, and is considered more harmful than Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

So even though Colorado had legalised marijuana, the US Drug Enforcement Agency conducted sweeping raids on its medical marijuana facilities as recently as 2013. But in June of this year, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a law prohibiting the Department of Justice from hindering state marijuana policy in this way any more. And this is a sea change – another green arrow on the road to full nationwide legalisation.

Colorado's pioneering role has been instrumental. Coastal types often decry the flyover states as conservative and unadventurous, averse to new ideas. And no doubt, California, weed's spiritual home, was expected to go first. (It tried in 2010, but the bill was poorly written and voters baulked.) But Colorado isn't Kansas; it's a frontier state where the West begins, and a Mecca for actual adventurers – climbers, boarders and rafters who flock to the Colorado River and the Rockies. It's always been a hippy haven. A mostly white swing state with a prosperous, middle-class electorate, it's also small enough to mobilise, with just over five million people, most of whom live in two college towns, Denver and Boulder – the latter of which is renown as a "party school".

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

What Colorado has proven is that there's real money here – and money has been the great persuader in this revolution. The Marijuana Industry Group estimates that there are some 10,000 weed jobs in Colorado, and already the state has devoted $40m of marijuana tax revenue to public schools. Larger states can expect greater windfalls – in California, medical marijuana dispensaries have netted $105m in taxes. And nationally, the numbers climb to the billions.

The legal marijuana trade is estimated to be worth $1.53bn this year alone, rising to $10.2bn annually, in five years' time. And then there are the costs of prohibition that can be saved on top – according to a 2010 Harvard study, those enforcement costs to state and federal governments are $17.4bn a year.

Most Popular

So, to whomever I ask this question – what's going on out here? – they use the phrase "green rush". Weed as the new gold, Denver as the new boomtown. Now that the market has caught a whiff of how much green there is in green, everyone wants a toke. It's like Silicon Valley – that's the other thing they say – Denver's not the Las Vegas of weed, it's the Palo Alto, a place of innovation, social revolution and oodles of venture capital. It's not just bud that's flowering, it's capitalism.

One of the ideas that typifies this brave new world is Dixie Elixir, the alcopop of the weed industry – fizzy fruit drinks with a dash of THC. Dixie also makes infused edibles and oils, and the CEO, Tripp Keber, is a former Reagan staffer, a suit-and-tie conservative who drives a Hummer and doesn't even like weed, personally. But cannabis, he says, is growing faster than the smartphone industry, and edibles are at the epicentre because they're healthier than smoking, and the possibilities are limitless.

At the cooking class earlier, the chef Blaine Alexandr told us about a phone call he took the other day. "Some douchebag VC in Connecticut says, 'I got $60m, what dispensaries can you get me?'" he said. "I called my team and they were like, 'Sorry, pal, we got millions, too.' You can't just buy into the Colorado scene right now, that's not happening. It's sealed up. We got this."

Blaine's 27, which might explain the swagger. But he has come a long way. He started as a chef for a deluxe party house, regularly rented out by musicians playing the nearby Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where Snoop will be playing on Sunday. When his clients – including many rock stars – asked for a little something in their snacks, Blaine delivered, and the reputation he built for gourmet edibles has now put him in a position he'd never imagined. His edibles company, Conscious Confections, is aligned with the 16th Street Mall-based dispensary Native Roots Apothecary, and they've got their sights set on the healthy, organic market.

They're also in the brokerage business, connecting cannabis business owners to investment. "Trust me, we're going so next level with this shit," he says. "I'm talking hotels, high-end dinners, with a cannabis sommelier. This is the new hotness, right here."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Three years ago, he was whipping up brunch for BB King, and now he's turning down $60m. And this is a guy who times his plant extractions according to the cycles of the Moon. That's what's going on in Denver – hippies are making bank.

It hasn't all been plain sailing, especially on the edibles front. A student jumped off a roof in March, post-cookies, and Richard Kirk, a Mormon father-of-three who, in April, shot his wife after spiralling into darkness and hallucination, a turn that some blame on marijuana candy (although he was also taking prescription painkillers).

For legalisation's opponents, these cases join a smattering of other complaints: a recent study by Chicago-based research centre Northwestern Medicine that shows the detrimental effect marijuana can have on the developing brains of teenagers; reports of cannabis-impaired drivers; and people buying weed in Colorado and selling it illegally out of the state. 

"We don't know what the unintended consequences are going to be," Colorado's Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, a longtime opponent of legal weed, told other governors in March, who anticipated the spread of legalisation. "I urge caution."

But these isolated facts cower before the broader truth: the hysterical predictions of marijuana's opponents have crumbled. There has been no explosion in crime, no spike in addictions, no social unrest, no epidemics of any sort. So that defiance of Blaine's – "we got this" – is common among the young Turks of the cannabis industry in Colorado. Because they feel they've done this right, and that this boom didn't come easy. Dues have been paid. "People struggled to make it in this industry," says Blaine. "They're not going to hand it to some out-of-state billionaire."

Few know the struggle better than Chloe Villano of Clover Leaf University. She came to the cannabis industry when her little brother contracted cancer at 15 – his doctors even suggested it, to ease his pain and help him sleep in his final months. And Chloe found her calling. She moved to Colorado from Florida to work as a paralegal helping new dispensaries get off the ground. It's been tough. Business owners have had to navigate draconian regulations that have left some in the dust, and turned friends against each other.

"People think cannabis is a great way to make fast money," she says. "But I've seen a lot of people lose money here, too. What you're looking at now are the survivors."

One of the industry's greatest challenges is that banks won't deal with marijuana companies so long as it remains against federal law. "So these growers and dispensaries, they're dealing with cash," Villano says. "I'm talking bricks of dollar bills, like suitcases of money. Which is a huge security risk."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

So now, a number of heavily armed security firms ferry drugs and money around town, like old school drug dealers, only this time the men with the guns, weed and cash are security staff, many of them ex-cops.

The future, however, is promising. The federal government has already taken steps to mitigate its obstruction to state marijuana laws, which may lead to an easing of restrictions for banks and online processors like PayPal, too.

Certainly, the industry in Colorado continues to move forward at a rate. Thus far, the law has been that dispensaries have to grow 70 per cent of their product – it was a way for the state to track the weed, and ensure that cartels couldn't get in on the action. But it limited the industry, by requiring retailers to be growers as well. That's about to change.

Most Popular

"In October, the 70/30 rule's going to be abandoned in Denver," Chloe says. "So growers will be independent from retailers, and we'll have a wholesale market for the first time. We'll see the first-ever marijuana brands in America! The first cannabis cigarettes, the first cannabis gum. You're going to see the Coors Light of cannabis."

It sounds outlandish – a huge marijuana brand with a recognisable logo, sponsoring sports events, available at supermarkets. But if weed is legal, popular and fully marketed, then the question is: why not ?

***

Quite where My 420 Tours fits into all this is hard to say. No doubt ancillary industries can be a smart choice, since they don't have regulation – stores in Denver that supply growers with equipment and soil are reporting $1m revenues per month. But tourism is dicey. As the US's kush Babylon, Colorado has a way to go – there's still no smoking (of anything) in public spaces or in bars, and no specific lounges, restaurants or weed-themed hotels. And if legalisation goes nationwide, it will dilute the state's cachet as a cannabis destination. Perhaps one day, as Megan speculates, "there'll just be a green cross on Expedia, it'll be a standard option."

So weed tourism is a tentative sector and it feels it – basic and low budget. A punt. But that's part of the charm of My 420 Tours – the staff are stoned, it's a shambles, but that's OK. Not every part of the weed scene has caught a taste of all that cash. At HoodLAB, for instance, the sofas are cheap and battered, and the snacks are all junk – Twizzlers and Oreos.

Similarly, My 420 Tours promised a "weed-friendly hotel" with a "smoking lounge", but that translates to an inflatable grey cube stuck out on a desolate fourth floor balcony, far from all signs of life. A couple of tatty couches, a table and that's it — no drinks menu, no service, and no heating lamps for when it gets cold in the evenings. Even on a marijuana tour, us smokers are banished to a grotty corner.

But no one complains. Weed tourists are the easiest to please, especially now, in the first flush of legalisation. We scarf down cheap food and call it delicious. We queue up for ages, never mind that it's the wrong line. And we speak of our inflatable cube-slash-"lounge" as though it were the Groucho Club. We gather there every night to crack jokes about the guy who's passed out (there's always a guy passed out on the couch). And we're back again in the mornings, too, pre-gaming before we get on the bus. It's our campfire.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"People are very patient in the cannabis community," says JJ Walker, 34, the founder of My 420 Tours. A former grower, he had to shut down overnight when the zoning requirements (US land use laws) changed and he almost lost everything, including the $100,000 he'd borrowed from his parents. Now, however, he's a diversified Denverite ganjapreneur. In addition to My 420 Tours, he's part-owner of the dispensary LaContes and he also runs an events firm, The Collective 360, that organises functions and parties: it was what he spent much of his career doing before weed took over. (A lot of the modern pot industry comes from the music or nightlife industry.)

So inevitably, our bus takes us to buy weed at LaContes and then to marvel at his grow operation. The synergy is obvious. And for Walker, this is just the start. "I have the rights to the brand World Cannabis Week," he says. "The plan is to turn it into the South by Southwest of weed, with festivals, events, workshops."

But there's a coolness about JJ, a distance. Megan's the friendly, happy face of weed tourism, while JJ's a man on his mobile walking in the opposite direction.

We smoke together at HoodLAB, at 4.20pm – his first hit today – and in the stoney aftermath, we agree to go to a gig later. "Ride with us, it'll be awesome," he says. But then the bus leaves without me, and so does JJ, and I end up out on the street failing to get a taxi. My eyes are closed in the breeze, and I'm marvelling at how the traffic whooshing past sounds like the sea; I can practically feel the tide wash over my toes.

By 9pm that night, I'm passed out on my hotel bed, with chicken parmesan on my shirt and the television on. It's only day two; I've already smoked myself into the Stone Age.

***

At the Cannabis Cup the next morning, the queue to get in snakes around the car park, three deep, then tails off to some vanishing point in Arizona. It's so long that it looks like CGI. But we expected this. JJ said the wait time was four hours: that was Saturday. Today is Sunday, 20 April – 420 itself.

So we didn't wait for the tour bus this morning, we cabbed it nice and early, me and GoPro John and the happiest couple in Pennsylvania, Candy and Jesse. There's no Megan to hold our hands, since it's also Easter Sunday today, and for Megan, Jesus trumps weed. So it's my job to jump the line for us all, since I'm the one with press credentials. And it's not easy – not just because of the epic lines, but because the people at the front are all in wheelchairs. There's a raspy old woman with a kitten, a Gulf war veteran with one leg… and us, trying to sneak in among them.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But it works. The bouncer shrugs and says, "sure". He's as stoned as us. When they eventually open the doors at 11am, we're the first ones in. I can hear GoPro laughing as we charge into the hall. "You do realise that we ran in front of that woman with the cat!"

The Free Weed signs are everywhere. That's what the Cup is all about – there are all these dispensaries who want to get you high enough to vote for their strain (a grower-developed variety of cannabis), but not so high that you'll forget what you're doing there. So it's like a rug market in Istanbul, with everyone fighting for your attention – only here it's drugs, not rugs, and the hawkers are 20-year-old promo-babes, offering you things to suck on.

Most Popular

As we bumble about giggling, following other stoners around the maze like ants, I learn a few things about the bright new frontiers of weed. It's not just edibles taking over, it's concentrates, too: the high-potency oils, waxes and this crystalline resin known as "shatter". Concentrates are the crack of weed: a fiercer, faster hit, and dabbing – the technique of choice – requires a blowtorch. You blast a little metal surface, place a blob of wax or shatter on it, and suck in the vapour as it melts and boils. It's like souped-up hot-knifing, the equivalent from back in the day; instead of blowtorches, we used matches, instead of metal plates, we used butter knives.

Another lesson: vaporiser (vape) pens are replacing spliffs. It's a bit Neanderthal to actually burn a plant with an open flame these days. Pens are bijou little objects, pocket size and discreet, and you can charge them through your USB. Chris Folkerts, the co-founder of G-Pen (endorsed by Snoop) is doing so well he'll be chartering a jet tonight to fly his team from the Coachella music festival straight to the Snoop gig here.

As for us, we manage to stagger into a taxi before too long, and on time – who says that stoners can't keep to a schedule?

The Cannabis Cup is a circus. Men are walking around with monkeys on their backs. And the more time passes and the more stoned you get, the more commercialised and plastic these booths feel, what with the constant sell-sell, and the "corporate models", with fake smiles and ruthless make-up, doing the full game-show hostess bit. It's much better at Civic Center Park, downtown, where there's this great throng of happy, red-eyed punters milling on the grass on Easter Sunday, gearing up for the big 4.20pm smoke. Some have been here all day, moshing in front of the sound stage as huge inflatable blunts float around in the air above. All of it has been sponsored by just one Colorado dispensary – and Frosted Leaf isn't even the biggest in the state, not by some distance.

That thrill of legality you feel out in Denver – of being able to hold a bag of puff out in the open without fear of being caught – it is all the more acute today. Because this rally is flanked on every side by the apparatus of state – the Supreme Court, the County Court, the Revenue Department, and at one end, surveying the scene from up high, the gleaming golden Dome of the State Capitol, winking at us in the sunlight. And yet look at this – everyone's pulling out their carrots and cones, while up on stage, the Georgia rapper BoB starts the countdown. As the clock strikes 20, the smoke rises off the crowd in a purple haze. There's coughing, there's cheering, there are lighters in the air. And over in the VIP pen, surveying it all, JJ beams.

"This is how it's meant to be," he says. "Everyone chilled out, like a regular music festival. And you see that guy?" He points to a man in a blue suit, smoking a cigar. He looks like an old sea dog, a Hemingway type, shaking hands with the organisers. "That's Mike Dunafon, he's the mayor of a city here called Glendale. He's running for governor."

Dunafon's an independent. Pro-weed, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. Of course, he won't get close to the governor's office. But right now, I don't want to think about that. I want to savour the image. Because BoB has summoned some twerkers from the crowd, and now there's a row of asses gyrating in the general direction of the Capitol Dome, a crowd of weedheads and a gubernatorial candidate grinning in the VIP area.

Either the US has changed, or I've been smoking something funny.

***
MORE CULTURE:
10 Ideas That Changed The Web
Why Thousands Of Young Men Are Giving Up Pornography In 2014
Raekwon: My Life In Hip Hop
***